“Bulla, Bulla, Leslie! Bulla! How did your lolo (coconut milk) turn out?” Ciba (pronounced Thimba), one of my new Fijian friends stopped me in the street today. When I tell her it worked out great, she laughs and laughs. “Good! Two German backpackers came to my village, yesterday. I cooked them dinner, and they loved the lolo! But, they said in Germany they don’t know how to make it. They just drink it out of the tin.”
I said, “I know, I know! We do that in the US, too, now that I am sailing in the islands I know it is so much better when made fresh.”
She laughs again, “It is! It is! I told them all about you. I told them there is an American girl in town who scraped her own coconuts and made coconut milk all by herself! They didn’t believe me.”
This is my new favorite thing.
It all started in Levuka. Upon making landfall, we started searching for traditional Fijian food to no avail. We enjoyed several delicious meals at Margu’s restaurant; pizza, chow mien, and wahoo in black bean sauce. But, there seemed to be a dearth of traditional Fijian food available in restaurants. On Saturday morning, a market sprung up on the main street. We stopped by before heading to our next anchorage.
As we walk the long line of fruits and veggies, we choose some sour oranges, eggplants, ginger, onions, potatoes, and garlic - the usual. Then, we reach a pile of seaweed shaped like tiny grapes on a vine.
“What is that?” I ask, pointing to the seaweed. It’s seaweed, I am told. “What do you do with it?”
The women seated on the grass explain they make a soupy cold, vegetable sauce made from the seaweed, dry shredded coconut, minced red peppers (the tiny kind that flashes with heat, then burns away quickly), and sour orange juice. They pour it over rice or boiled tuna. Sounds good, I’ll try it. I gather up the ingredients, pay the woman in Fijian cash, and walk away with my bundle of seaweed, coconut and peppers. The women laugh and smile as I go. “Good luck!” They say, but they also seem pleased that I’m going to give it a shot.
Back on Sonrisa, we up anchor and head to a little island four hours away, Makogai, where we will snorkel to see giant clams. Upon pulling into the anchorage, we receive a hail from Romano parked next door: “Sonrisa, Sonrisa, Sonrisa, this is Romano.” When we respond back, we are invited over for beers and nibbles. Fantastic, I think. We can make our seaweed concoction.
We mix it all together, look down and take a taste. The tiny seaweed “grapes” pop in your mouth, giving a fresh, salty flavor. The sour orange adds a tangy, the peppers, a quick heat, and coconut, a creamy sweet texture. It reminds me a little bit of guacamole, if you squint. “If we had tortilla chips, this would be a great party salsa!” I think. We don’t have tortilla chips….but we do have a pack of roties.
Roties arean Indian food much like a thin pancake. I slice it up, fry it in high heat and coconut oil until crispy, and voila! “Fijian Chips and Salsa.” I don’t think this is exactly how my Fijian friends at the market would do it, but it will have to do for tonight. A success!
We explore the giant clams — and they were giant.
Then, we up anchor again and head to the “Big City” of Savusavu. Once again, after exploring the length of town, we find Indian, Chinese and Korean restaurants, but no Fijian food. I am emboldened by my Fijian Chips and Salsa, so I suggest that we head to the market.
In Savusavu, the market is a 6 day a week affair. Every day, people set up their tables to sell vegetables, fruit, spices, kava, honey, handicrafts and even frozen fish. As we walk in the door, giant open bags of rice, lentils, and other grains sit open on the floor waiting for someone to scoop them up. A corrugated metal roof provides shade, and the only lighting comes from the pin holes in the metal roof and daylight surrounding the open air market.
The smell is intoxicating. Kava root, the ingredient to make Fiji’s famous face-numbing concoction, hangs from rafters in the ceiling wrapped in newspaper. It smells of warm, dry soil, upturned in a sun baked Utah garden. The kava mixes with freshly ground Indian spices: masala, curry, star anise, fennel. A table of brilliantly yellow ripe pineapple add sweetness to the air.
We wander amongst the tables and gather this and that. When we find some unique Fijian vegetable I employ my new tactic: “What is this? How do you like to cook it?” In response, Fijian eyes light up and I am granted their consistently beautiful smile.
This is Darrouka, or Fijian Asparagus. Remove the husk, take the inner fibers out and place them in a rich soup of freshly squeezed coconut milk (lolo), salt, red pepper, and diced onions. Boil it together until the onions are soft and translucent.
I gather up the Darrouka in my arms, buy a bundle of four coconuts, a little bag of peppers. As I buy the coconuts, they laugh and ask me: “do you know how to make coconut milk?” Luckily, I have seen this done already. Mario in the Marquesas, Nancy in Tonga, they each showed me their own personal method of scraping the coconut, soaking the coconut in hot water, then squeezing the fresh milk from the shreds. I explain this to the Fijians and they all nod in agreement: yes, this is how they do it, too. “But do you have a scraper?” Now, they are indignant. I can’t possibly own a scraper.
“Where can I get one?” I ask. They tell me I can find one at the grocery store. Perfect. A half hour later, I have acquired a coconut scraper for $6.90 Fijian (or $3.45 US).
As I walk back through town, I draw several inquiries about my armful of Darrouka: “Do you know what that is? Do you know what to do with it?” I report all instructions previously provided and everyone adds their own personal way of doing it. “Are you really going to make your own coconut milk?”
As I pass the little doorway to Ciba's laundry room, she says me walking by. She too is curious about my intentions. She generously offers to scrape the coconuts for me. “No! No!” I tell her, “I have to learn how to do it myself.” She laughs and says okay when I ask: “What will I do to get coconut milk when I get home if I don’t learn how to do it myself?”
Back on Sonrisa, I begin the process. At first it is awkward, but luckily I watched Nancy in Tonga closely. I sit on the wooden slat of my coconut scraper, put a large empty bowl at my feet, then begin scraping. An hour later, my bowl is filled with the meat of three neatly scraped coconuts. I pour in some hot water, then gather up the meat in a clean, thin piece of cloth, then squeeze. Voila! Coconut milk.
Our darrouka is a grand success. Rich, creamy, salty, and delicious - to me, the darrouka tastes like steamed artichoke hearts. I now have another Fijian recipe in my repertoire, and what is even better, I have all of Savusavu’s Fijian ladies chatting with me about their personal cooking techniques.
Tomorrow's dinner: Rourou soup with rice and sauteed ferns.